Christopher Booker's Notebook
In seven weeks' time, thanks to new rules rushed through by John Prescott to "harmonise" Britain with the rest of Europe, we face the prospect of a startling shortage of self-employed electricians. After January 1, any of us wishing to carry out any but minor electrical works in our homes may find that, under the new "Part P" of the Building Regulations, we have fallen foul of one of the more bizarre legislative shambles of recent years.
The new regulations, introduced by Mr Prescott's Office of the Deputy Prime Minister only last summer, to conform with an edict from Cenelec, the Brussels-based "Committee for the Normalisation of Electrotechnology", impose draconian new rules on anyone needing to carry out electrical work in the home.
Apart from simple jobs such as the replacement of a cracked light socket, electrical work will be legal only if carried out in one of two ways. First, every electrician, however experienced, will have to be certified as a "competent person". This will require him or her to pay between £350 and £1,500 to be "monitored" for six months by employees of one of a handful of private companies appointed by the ODPM as "certifying bodies". During that time, the electrician will be disbarred from carrying out any but minor works, except while his work is being monitored, possibly by someone very much less experienced than himself. He will subsequently have to pay a similar annual fee to have his certificate renewed.
The only alternative, applying to householders themselves as much as to professional electricians, will be to submit plans of most electrical work in advance to the building control department of the local council. This will include work of any kind in a kitchen or bathroom. The council will then have to be paid to inspect the work.
It is estimated that 100,000 electricians, many of whom are still barely aware of this new scheme, will be caught up in its toils. Clive Brittain of Milton Keynes, who has worked as a self-employed electrician for more than 30 years, with every professional qualification, says: "I am all for safety and good practice, but this nonsense from the ODPM is farcical. How can we be expected to keep paying out for registration, assessments, annual membership and inspections, while being forced to lose so much working time? The whole thing is bonkers."
Clive Thornton, of Sale, Cheshire, adds: "In addition to all this hassle, I will also, for an as-yet-undisclosed fee, be required to register a copy of every job certificate I issue with an as-yet-unnamed, Government-approved private firm. All this seems like rather a lot of effort to put genuine one-man businesses out of business, while leaving the cowboys untouched (as usual)."
One particularly puzzling feature of Mr Prescott's scheme is the speed with which it has been rushed through. Calls to several council building departments suggest that they are in no way prepared for the deluge of extra work the new rules will involve. It will become a criminal offence for householders to carry out most electrical work without getting council approval. And, as from January 1 it will similarly become an offence, punishable by fines of up to £5,000, to sell a property without a certificate for any electrical work carried out after the new law comes into force. Stand by for a nationwide howl of outrage at another shambles created by Mr Prescott.
It is hard to exaggerate the significance of the defeat inflicted by the voters of the North-East on John Prescott's plan to give them an elected regional assembly. Until last Thursday it used to be said that the largest margin of victory in any British election was the two-to-one vote in favour of staying in the Common Market in 1975. But the margin of Mr Prescott's defeat was almost four to one.
This marked the first serious rebuff for one of the most ambitious personal projects in our political history - Mr Prescott's plans for what Andrew Marr called on Friday the "Balkanisation" of Britain. In 1998, with scarcely a murmur of protest, Mr Prescott pushed through six Acts of Parliament all linked to his grand design - setting up regional governments for Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London, and unelected regional assemblies for the eight remaining English regions, and dividing the United Kingdom into 12 giant "regional constituencies" for elections to the European Parliament.
Curiously, the only senior politician to protest that this was all part of a hidden agenda to diminish the role of national governments in creating a "Europe of the Regions" was that great Europhile Michael Heseltine. This particular version of "European federalism", he said in 1998, was "totally unacceptable".
As the final piece in his jigsaw puzzle, Prescott intended to turn his appointed regional assembles into elected regional parliaments. Beginning with a referendum in the "safe" Labour heartland of the North-East, he hoped this would set off a domino effect across the rest of the English regions.
As readers of this column will know, if there is one man who, more than anyone else, stopped this plan in its tracks, it is Neil Herron. This former Sunderland market trader has been transformed by years of campaigning - first as leader of the "metric martyrs", then against Prescott's assembly - into something of a North-East folk hero. It was Mr Herron who, by repeatedly wrong-footing the local political establishment, managed to turn what had once seemed the unstoppable advance of an elected assembly into a rout.
Despite the best efforts of the BBC (see below) and the ineptitude of the Electoral Commission, Prescott's grand design is now in total disarray. The problem is that, having advanced so far towards his goal by stealth, we are left with eight wholly undemocratic regional assemblies, costing us £200 million a year and serving no useful purpose whatever. The only conclusion that can be drawn from the people's verdict on Thursday is that these absurd bodies, staffed by self-important placemen, must be scrapped.
One organisation which came particularly badly out of the North-East referendum campaign was the BBC. Its local reporting was ludicrously one-sided in supporting a Yes vote, even to the point where, for more than a year, it continued to push a dubious poll which predicted 72 per cent support for an elected assembly, in contrast to the mere 22 per cent registered on Thursday.
It was yet another illustration of the way the BBC seems to report a wide range of issues according to an absolutely recognisable agenda. This decides not only whom it invites to appear on its programmes and what gets said but, just as important, what isn't given a hearing.
On Friday, for instance, no one who heard John Humphrys on the Today programme sanctimoniously hectoring Geoff Hoon could have been left in any doubt as to where the BBC stands on the situation in Iraq. Earlier in the week, the BBC could scarcely conceal its collective shock and horror at the defeat of its preferred candidate, Senator Kerry. A similarly predictable world-view colours almost everything it does. On wind power, it is in favour. On hunting, it is against. On the EU, on almost any kind of regulation, on banning smoking in public places, it is in favour - and any evidence opposing the received BBC view gets very short shrift.
Just occasionally, however, cracks appear in this political and cultural monolith. Twice in recent days BBC programmes have discussed an enormous new book I have just published on storytelling, The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories (Continuum, £25). All the panellists invited to discuss it on Start the Week and Saturday Review, from the novelist Margaret Atwood to the journalist John Pilger, came from that same rather narrow segment of the Guardianista, politically-correct orthodoxy which shapes the BBC's position on just about everything.
But despite inevitable complaints that my survey of world storytelling since the dawn of civilisation did not include enough stories by modern feminist lady novelists or describing the injustices of the slave trade, every one of the panellists found something kind to say about my book. For that I was very grateful.